Do we need a Peoples’ PMQs?

UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband recently floated the idea of a weekly “public question time” where an audience representative of the country would question the prime minister on any issue of the day.

Miliband was a bit short on details regarding how this would work. Apart from stating that the audience should be representative of the country, the only other details he provided was that the public PMQs should be held in parliament at least every two weeks, but preferably weekly.

On the surface, it’s an interesting idea, but it also raises a number of questions. First of all, how would these people – representative of the country – be selected? Would it be a completely random process, you know, sort of like being chosen for jury duty? Or would interested persons be invited via a website or social media to put their name in? If the latter, self-selection, then you’re not going to end up with an audience “representative of the country.” You’re going to end up with an audience full of political partisans and people with specific causes and agendas.

As Dan Hodge rightly notes in this column:

The vast majority of British voters have zero interest in Prime Minister’s Questions. Nor, once the initial novelty had worn off, would they have any more interest in watching People’s Questions. It’s only politicians who think the weekly interrogation of politicians is of major national significance.

This is the reality of our times: most people – most ordinary people “representative of the country” just don’t care enough – or at all – about politics. They’d have no interest in participating in a Peoples’ PMQs. The only people who would be keen on participating, as I stated above, would be partisans and people with vested interests. The sad truth is that people who are really keen on politics aren’t the majority. And if you end up with an audience full of partisans, the questions won’t be any more enlightening than what you currently get in PMQs. Case in point: when this story came out in the UK, the Guardian put up an open thread column asking “What would you ask David Cameron?” If you’re not familiar with the Guardian, suffice it to say that the vast majority of its readers do not like the Tories. The paper is strongly associated with the Labour Party, and its readers are decidedly left-of-centre. A quick perusal of some of the suggestions quickly demonstrates what sort of questions partisans would ask.

I admit that I am very leery of “real people” questions. There has been an extremely annoying trend here in Canada regarding leaders’ debates during election campaigns, where the normal practice of having the party leaders face questions from a panel of seasoned journalists has been replaced with asking questions from “ordinary” Canadians. The problem with this is that, as I’ve said, most people aren’t really into politics, and the questions that are asked often tend to be rather non-specific, and often inappropriate. A lot of “ordinary” people will ask federal party leaders questions about education and healthcare, which aren’t federal responsibilities. Yes, the federal government provides funding to the provinces to be used for education and healthcare, but Ottawa’s ability to do much in those areas is quite limited. I do miss the days when Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe would simply sneer at those questions and dismiss them with “That’s not a federal responsibility, it’s provincial” and refuse to say more, while the other federal leaders would try to wax poetic about grandiose plans over something they really couldn’t do much about. I would think any sort of “Peoples PMQs” wouldn’t be much better.

Another issue is simply that this idea looks like an attempt to by-pass Parliament. MPs are elected to represent people – it is their job to hold the PM and the Cabinet to account. If citizens have certain concerns about a government policy, they can (and should) contact their MP and that MP should try to get answers on behalf of his or her constituents from the relevant government minister, including the PM. There are a number of UK MPs who, once they learn that they’ll be allotted a question during PMQs (because the names of MPs are drawn in a lottery), ask for suggestions for questions on Twitter and other social media. Whether or not they actually use any of the questions suggested to them by their followers, I don’t know, but I do regularly see them on Twitter inviting people to suggest questions.

UK party leaders are already quite accessible to the public (especially compared to Canadian party leaders). Before he became PM, David Cameron held a regular number of Q&A sessions in marginal ridings. He has continued this practice since becoming PM (here’s a recent one from this year). Yes, these aren’t always public events or televised, so not the same as a Peoples’ PMQs, but my point here is that at least the PM is regularly going out and talking to people, being questioned by them. Deputy PM Nick Clegg has a weekly radio call-in show.

Every single minister regularly appears before his or her department’s select committee for questioning (including the PM, who appears before the Liaison Committee a couple of times each session – you can watch his most recent appearance here. More and more of these committees have also turned to Twitter and other social media to invite “ordinary people” to submit questions to be put to the Minister. They will often reserve the last 20 or so minutes of the session for questions submitted by the public. Here’s an interesting assessment of the very first time this was attempted back in 2012, by the Education Committee.

I don’t disagree with Ed Miliband and others that there is too often a disconnect between elected officials and the general public, but I don’t think that a Peoples’ PMQs will really do much to change that. My gut feeling is that a lot of people, probably a majority of people, will never be that interested in politics in general, and gimmicks won’t change that.

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Coalition government and constraints on the PM’s prerogative powers

The UK House of Lords Select Committee on Constitution has been conducting an inquiry on The Constitutional Implications of Coalition Government. For anyone interested in parliamentary conventions, government formation and other related issues, this is absolutely fascinating stuff.

On 9 October 2013, Professor Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Donoughue appeared as witnesses before the committee. It was quite interesting, enlivened somewhat by Lord Donoughue’s staunch dislike of the very idea of coalition government. In fact, he repeatedly urged the Committee to stress in their final report the many advantages of alternatives to coalition since, as he put it, “I fear that a younger generation will begin to assume that if they do not get a majority, they must have a coalition.” (page 2 of the uncorrected transcript)

Some interesting points were raised during the course of the hearing. Lord Norton discussed some of the major departures from “normal” constitutional practice brought about by coalition government, particularly those that affect the Prime Minister’s prerogative powers. He identified four such departures, which he grouped under two headings. The first is the existence, under coalition, of a dual executive. This affects the Prime Minister’s traditional prerogative powers in two ways. The first concerns ministerial appointments, which are no longer purely the prerogative of the PM as the sovereign’s adviser. Normally, in the case of single-party government, the Prime Minister has the power to the power to appoint, reshuffle or dismiss cabinet ministers. With the current coalition, it was agreed that the Liberal Democrats would have five cabinet positions, and number of ministerial spots. It is the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who decides which of his party’s MPs will be appointed to those spots. The Prime Minister, Conservative David Cameron, can still shuffle his cabinet, but he cannot dismiss or appoint any Liberal Democrats on his own. The second change brought about by the dual executive concerns the convention of collective responsibility. Traditionally, decisions are arrived at collectively in Cabinet, and Cabinet is bound to support those decisions plublicly and in the House (by voting for them, for example). There have been departures from this with the Coalition government.

The other changes which impede the PM’s prerogative powers have come about because of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, 2011. The first concerns maintaining the confidence of the House. As we know, the PM and Cabinet are responsible to, and must answer to, the House of Commons and must maintain the confidence and support of a majority of the House. If the government is defeated in the House on a matter of confidence, then the government is expected to resign or seek the dissolution of Parliament so that an election can be held. What are matters of confidence? That can vary, but it is generally acknowledged that confidence motions can be:

  • explicitly worded motions, usually moved by the Opposition, which state that the House has, or has not, confidence in the government;
  • any motion that the government expressly declares to be questions of confidence; and
  • implicit motions of confidence, that is, motions traditionally deemed to be questions of confidence, such as motions for the granting of supply, motions concerning the budgetary policy of the government and motions respecting the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, 2011, the Prime Minister can no longer declare a certain vote to be a matter of confidence. Or rather, as Lord Norton explains, a Prime Minister could say that a particular motion was one of confidence, if defeated, the only thing the government could do is resign. The option of requesting a dissolution is no longer available. This ties in with the second change – previously, the Prime Minister could seek to dissolve the House and call a new election when he or she so desired. The Act now establishes a fixed date, and unlike similar Canadian and provincial Acts, there is a very specific process in place that must be followed in order to dissolve a parliament before the date fixed by law for the next election. As explained in the Cabinet Manual:

2.19 Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, if a government is defeated on a motion that ‘this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’, there is then a 14-day period during which an alternative government can be formed from the House of Commons as presently constituted, or the incumbent government can seek to regain the confidence of the House.

If no government can secure the confidence of the House of Commons during that period, through the approval of a motion that ‘this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’, a general election will take place. Other decisions of the House of Commons which have previously been regarded as expressing ‘no confidence’ in the government no longer enable or require the Prime Minister to hold a general election. The Prime Minister is expected to resign where it is clear that he or she does not have the confidence of the House of Commons and that an alternative government does have the confidence.

As Lord Norton concludes, those are the main changes to the Prime Minister’s prerogative powers, and the last two won’t end with a return to single-party government. They will have “ongoing consequences because they are statutory changes.”

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The Westminster System of Parliamentary Government

I frequently refer to the “Westminster system of parliamentary government” in posts, and thought it might be a good idea to fully explain how the Westminster system of government works.

The Westminster System of Parliamentary Government

The Westminster System is a democratic system of government modelled after that of the United Kingdom, as used in the Palace of Westminster, the location of the UK parliament. The system is a series of conventions and procedures for operating a legislature. It is used, or was once also used, in most Commonwealth and ex-Commonwealth nations. There are other parliamentary systems, for example those of various European countries, whose procedures differ considerably from the Westminster system.

Aspects of the Westminster system include:

  1. a head of state, who is different from the head of government, and who may possess reserve powers, which are not normally exercised, and whose role is largely ceremonial. In most countries, this is either a monarch or a representative of the monarch (e.g. Governor General), or a president;
  2. a head of government (usually called the Prime Minister or Premier or First Minister) who is appointed by the head of state, but who, by convention, must have the support of the majority of the Members of Parliament;
  3. an executive branch, usually called the Cabinet, made up of Members of the legislature and led by the head of government;
  4. the presence of opposition parties;
  5. an elected legislature, or a system in which one house is elected and the other appointed, although in some countries with bicameral systems, both Houses are elected;
  6. the confidence convention, by which the lower House can dismiss a government by either withholding Supply (not passing the budget) or via a vote of non-confidence (either by passing a motion of non-confidence or defeating some other measure which was deemed a matter of confidence);
  7. parliamentary privilege, which allows the legislature to discuss any issue deemed by itself to be relevant, without fear of consequences stemming from defamatory statements or records thereof;
  8. a parliament which can be dissolved and elections called at any time, even when there exists fixed election dates.

Most of the procedures of the Westminster system originated with the conventions, practices and precedents of the UK parliament, which are a part of what is known as the British constitution. Unlike the UK, most countries which use the Westminster system have codified the system in a written constitution. However convention, practices and precedents continue to play a significant role in these countries, as many constitutions do not specify important elements of procedure: for example, older constitutions using the Westminster system (e.g. Canada’s) may not even mention the existence of a head of government or Prime Minister, with the office’s existence and role evolving outside the primary constitutional text.

Operation

The pattern of executive functions within a Westminster System is complex. The head of state exercises a largely ceremonial role, even though they are the de jure source of executive power. The head of state does not normally exercise their executive powers; rather, these powers are exercised in their name by the head of government (Prime Minister),  the Cabinet and other junior ministers. For example, in the UK, the Queen theoretically holds executive authority, even though the PM and the Cabinet effectively implement executive powers. In a parliamentary republic like India, the President is the de jure executive, even though executive powers are essentially instituted by the PM and his Council of Ministers.

In a Westminster system, some members of parliament are elected by popular vote, while others may be appointed. Most Westminster-based parliaments which are bicameral have a House of Commons or House of Representatives, comprised of local, elected representatives of the people, and an upper house, which can come in a variety of different forms, such as the British House of Lords (with membership previously determined only by heredity, but changed to a mixed appointment-heredity system), or the Canadian Senate (appointed by the Prime Minister), or the Australian Senate (elected using a proportional system, the Single Transferable Vote). In Britain, the Commons is the de facto legislative body, while the House of Lords practices restraint in exercising its constitutional powers and serves as a consultative body. In other Westminster countries, however, the equivalent upper house of parliament can sometimes exercise considerable power. The head of government is usually chosen by being invited to form a government by the head of state or the representative of the head of state (e.g. the Governor General), not by parliamentary vote. There are notable exceptions to the above in the Republic of Ireland, where the President of Ireland has a mandate through direct election, and the Taoiseach (prime minister) prior to appointment by the President of Ireland is nominated by the democratically elected lower house, Dáil Éireann. In two of the Canadian territories, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, which don’t have political parties but a system of consensus government, the Premier is elected by the other Members of the legislature.

The head of government, usually called the Prime Minister, must be able to either control a majority of seats within the lower house,  or to ensure the existence of no absolute majority against his or her government. If the parliament passes a motion of no confidence or if the government fails to pass a major bill such as the budget, then the government must either resign, so that a different government can be appointed, or seek a parliamentary dissolution so that new elections may be held in order to re-confirm or deny their mandate. In bicameral jurisdictions, government is formed in the lower house alone. Although the dissolution of the legislature and the call for new elections is formally done by the head of state, by convention the head of state acts according to the wishes of the head of government.

Cabinet Government

Members of the Cabinet are collectively seen as responsible for government policy. All Cabinet decisions are normally made by consensus. All ministers, whether senior and in the Cabinet, or junior ministers, must support the policy of the government publicly regardless of any private reservations. A cabinet member may be forced to resign, or may choose to resign, if they oppose one aspect of a government’s agenda. The power to appoint ministers to the Cabinet – and to dismiss them – is perhaps the single most powerful constitutional power which a Prime Minister has in the political control of the Government in the Westminster system.

Linked to Cabinet government is the idea, at least in theory, that ministers are responsible for the actions of their departments. It is no longer considered to be an issue of resignation if the actions of members of their department, over whom the minister has no direct control, make mistakes or formulate procedures which are not in accordance with agreed policy decisions. One of the major powers of the Prime Minister under the Westminster system is to be the arbitrator of when a fellow minister is accountable for the actions of his or her department.

The Official Opposition and other major political parties not in the Government, will mirror the governmental organisation with their own Shadow Cabinet made up of Shadow Ministers.

Consequences

The Westminster system is characterized by the presence of well-disciplined legislative parties in which it is highly unusual for a legislator to vote against their own party, whether they are part of the governing party or an opposition party, and in which no-confidence votes are very rare occurrences, usually occurring only during times of minority government. Also, Westminster systems tend to have strong cabinets. Conversely, legislative committees in Westminster systems tend to be weak, though they often have the ability to force a government to reveal certain pieces of information. The degree to which this is true varies from one jurisdiction to another, of course. Party discipline is extremely strong in Canada and Australia, but much less so in the United Kingdom. Also, recent reforms of select committees in the UK have given committees there much more independence and influence.

Ceremonies and Traditions

Parliaments using the Westminster system are greatly influenced by, and continue to follow many very ancient British customs. A Westminster-style parliament is usually a long, rectangular room, with rows of seats or desks on either side. The chairs are positioned so that the two sides are facing each other. The intended purpose of this arrangement is to create a visual representation of the adversarial nature of parliamentary government. Traditionally, the opposition parties sit on the side to the left of the Speaker, and the government party will sit to the Speaker’s right. This is how the UK House of Commons and the Canadian House of Commons are laid out, but the Australian House of Representatives and New Zealand parliament are not. Those two chambers both adopted a horseshoe arrangement, but the government side is still to the right of the Speaker and the opposition parties to the left. Tradition holds that the distance between the to sides in the UK House of Commons is that of the length of two swords although no documentary evidence exists to support this and in fact, weapons have never been allowed in the Palace of Westminster at any time.

At one end of the room sits a large chair, for the Speaker of the House. The Speaker usually wears a black robe, and in many countries, a wig. Robed parliamentary clerks often sit at narrow tables between the two rows of seats.

Other ceremonies sometimes associated with the Westminster system include an annual Speech from the Throne (or equivalent) in which the Head of State gives a special address (written by the government) to parliament about what kind of policies to expect in the coming year, and lengthy State Opening of Parliament ceremonies that often involve the presentation of a large ceremonial mace carried by the Sergeant-at-Arms.

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Parliaments, PMOs and Social Media

On Tuesday, 31 January 2012, Education Secretary Michael Gove appeared before the House of Commons Education Committee. It is the Committee’s mandate to monitor the policy, administration and spending of the Department for Education and its associated arms length bodies, and having the Minister give evidence allows them to scrutinize his work, performance and policies.

This in and of itself is not remarkable. What is different about this meeting is that in advance of the session, the Committee asked the public to suggest questions via twitter. By all accounts, this rather novel approach was a huge success:

“We have been overwhelmed by how many there have been… For the last few days, there have just been hundreds and hundreds and ultimately thousands, I think, of questions.”

Over 5000 questions were received via Twitter, and the last hour of Gove’s appearance before the committee was used for questions submitted that way. You can watch the proceedings here, if interested. Both the UK Parliament and Government have embraced social media tools (defined as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, etc.) to a far greater extent than have parliaments in other Commonwealth jurisdictions. I would like to use this post to highlight some of these initiatives. Please note that I will be focusing here primarily on the use of social media by national parliaments and Offices of the Prime Minister/cabinet, but not on government departments. I will also look at the parliaments of sub-national jurisdictions, such as the Canadian provincial legislatures and Australian state parliaments, but not in as great detail, nor will I focus on the use of social media by individual MPs. It is highly possible that I may miss something, and if this is the case, I will update the post as needed, should such an omission be brought to my attention.

The United Kingdom - Parliaments

There is an official UK Parliament Twitter account (@UKParliament) which regularly tweets the upcoming business of the House of Commons and its various select committees, as well as other relevant news items. The House of Lords has its own Twitter account (@UKHouseofLords) which does much the same, but focusing only on the upper Chamber.

The UK Parliament also has a Facebook page, a Flickr account, and a YouTube channel. The UK Parliament has organized these videos in 10 playlists: PMQs (going back to 12 October 2011), Select Committees, Parliament Tours, 20 Years of Televised Commons, The Speaker, People and Parliament Inquiry, Virtual Tour of Westminster Hall, The House of Lords, Education Series, and Big Ben.

While not an initiative of Westminster, I would like to also mention Lords of the Blog, a collective blog authored by various members of the House of Lords. The blog launched in 2008 and is sponsored by the Hansard Society. You can also follow the blog on Twitter (@lordsoftheblog).

The Scottish Parliament has a Twitter account (@ScotParl), while the Welsh Assembly makes use of Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube, as does the Northern Ireland Assembly (Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube). The Northern Ireland Assembly also maintains a blog, Assembly Round Up, which is described as being “not just about Assembly business, but also about some of the events, or behind-the-scenes activities.”

And while they don’t technically count as social media, I will mention that the Scottish and Welsh parliaments have online petitions schemes, although the Scottish Parliament’s e-petitions system is currently being overhauled, and so not active at the time of writing. And of course, I have written several posts about the e-petitions scheme launched by the UK Government in August 2011.

The United Kingdom – Prime Minister’s Office

On the Government side, the UK Prime Minister’s Office has an official Twitter account (@Number10gov), which bills itself as “The official twitter channel for Prime Minister David Cameron’s office, based at 10 Downing Street.” The website link associated with the account is to the official website of the Prime Minister’s Office (http://www.number10.gov.uk).

Consequently, the UK Prime Minister Twitter account is what I will be calling a “generic” account. By this I mean that it is associated with the Office of the Prime Minister and not specifically with the current incumbent of that office. Thus, if PM David Cameron left politics tomorrow, there would be no need to create a new Twitter account for whoever took over as the new Prime Minister. I mention this only because it presents a sharp contrast with the Twitter accounts of other prime ministers, as will be discussed below.

Number 10 also makes use of Facebook and Flickr. While the Flickr account, like the Twitter account is that of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Facebook page is David Cameron’s Facebook page, not a more generic Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Facebook page. There is also an “Official Number 10” iPhone app available, for the really diehard fans.

Cabinet Office also has a strong social media presence. There is a Twitter account (@cabinetofficeUK), Flickr account and YouTube channel. Cabinet Office supports the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, helping to ensure effective development, coordination and implementation of policy and operations across all government departments. It is headed by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. Clegg has a Twitter account, but it is Nick Clegg’s official Twitter account, not a generic Deputy Prime Minister Twitter account.

And while I stated at the outset that I would not be discussing individual MPs’ use of social media, I will single out one cabinet minister in particular, Foreign Secretary William Hague. Hague is an avid user of Twitter and frequently holds Q&A sessions on Twitter wherein he solicits and answers questions from people on various aspects of foreign policy and international events.

Canada – Parliaments

Overall, Canadian parliaments are lagging in their adoption of social media.

The Canadian House of Commons does not make use of any social media, however, the Canadian Senate recently launched a Twitter account, @SenateCA.

Three Canadian provincial legislatures have started using social media: Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan. The Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island has both a Twitter account and a Facebook page, as does the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan (Twitter, Facebook). The Nova Scotia House of Assembly has  Twitter account.

Canada – Prime Minister’s Office

In contrast to the Canadian Parliament’s notable absence on social media, the Prime Minister’s Office has embraced social media whole-heartedly. Some of the social media accounts are generic – meaning associated with the Office and not more personally with the current incumbent, while other accounts are official but personal (or partisan) and could not be used by the next Prime Minister. The Prime Minister of Canada website features links to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, as well as Google+ and podcasts. The Twitter, Facebook and Flickr accounts are associated with the PMO and link back to the PMO website. However, the Prime Minister has another Twitter account (@pmharper) which is more personal and partisan as the associated link is to the Conservative Party of Canada website. Similarly, the YouTube channel is heavily branded by the individual, with Stephen Harper’s name dominant. It does link back to the PMO website, but would require a significant overhaul before it could be used by another PM. The Google+ account is clearly a more personal Stephen Harper account rather than an official, generic Prime Minister of Canada account.

Australia – Parliaments

There are four Twitter accounts associated with the Australian Parliament. The Australian House of Representatives and Senate both have Twitter accounts (@AboutTheHouse and @AuSenate). The Hansard services also has a Twitter account (@AUS_Hansard), as does the Parliamentary Library (@ParlLibrary).

Four of Australia’s six states and two territories have social media presence. They are:

Australia – Prime Minister’s Office

The social media accounts listed on the website of the Prime Minister of Australia would appear to be personal accounts rather than generic accounts for the post of PM rather than the current incumbent. The Facebook page is Kevin Rudd’s page, the Twitter account (@KRuddMP) is associated with the Kevin Rudd’s personal website, not the website of the Office of the Prime Minister. The video page on the Prime Minister of Australia website are hosted by Kevin Rudd’s YouTube account.

New Zealand – Parliament

The New Zealand Parliament has a Twitter account (@NZParliament).

New Zealand – Prime Minister’s Office

Prime Minister John Key has a Twitter account (@johnkeypm), but like the Australian PM’s account, it isn’t a generic Office of the Prime Minister account. It links to John Key’s Facebook page, and to his political website.

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Keyword post: Short answers to various queries

The following are answers to questions based on recent keyword search activity which has led people to this blog.

1. How many signatures does an e-petition require for it to be debated in the UK Parliament?

First of all, there is no guarantee that any petition will be debated in Parliament. Under the UK Government’s new e-petitions scheme, if an e-petition gets 100,000 signatures that will only guarantee that it will be referred to the Backbench Business Committee for consideration for debate in the House of Commons, however, the Committee is free to consider scheduling a debate on any petition, regardless of the number of signatures it receives. In other words, garnering 100,000 signatures will not guarantee a debate, and garnering fewer than 100,000 does not exclude the possibility of a debate. For a detailed explanation of this, please see this post. All petitions, however, will receive a response from the Government, once the period for signing them has closed.

2. If something happened to the Prime Minister, who would take over?

In countries such as Canada, the UK, etc., if the Prime Minister were incapacitated, decided to resign as his or her party leader or died suddenly, the party forming the government would simply name an interim leader from among its MPs. The interim leader would be acting Prime Minister while the party would hold a leadership race to choose a new leader, who would then automatically become the Prime Minister. These countries do not have presidential systems; prime ministers are not directly elected by voters to the post in general elections – the leader is chosen by the party. Parties can choose to change their leader at any time and for any reason, and if that party is the party that is forming the government, the new leader would become Prime Minister. Please see this post for information on how the Prime Minister becomes Prime Minister, and this post which addresses some related issues.

3. Who can force the Prime Minister out of office?

Since Prime Ministers in the UK and other countries are not directly elected by voters, they can’t really be forced out of office. The Prime Minister is simply an MP elected in a given constituency and who is also the leader of a political party which ends up forming the government. The surest way a PM can be removed from office by voters is for his or her party to be defeated in a general election. In between elections, however, a government can be removed from office if it loses the confidence of the House of Commons. Certain votes are considered confidence votes (the vote on the Speech from the Throne and the budget vote, for example). If a majority in the House vote against the government on these votes, the government is defeated. That could lead to a new election, or, depending on party standings in the House of Commons, another party might be asked to form the government. The party forming the government can also decide that it would prefer someone else to be its leader and force the current leader (and PM) to resign as party leader. The party would then choose a new leader, who would immediately become the Prime Minister. That party would still remain in power as the government, however.

4. How do I submit an e-petition to the Canadian House of Commons/provincial legislature?

Simply put, you can’t, unless you live in Quebec or in the Northwest Territories, which are the only legislatures in Canada which recognize or accept e-petitions. If you want to petition parliament or any other provincial legislature, you will have to do it the traditional way – print up your petition and collect real signatures on it. See this post for information on how to petitions legislatures in Canada.

5. Where I can find a picture of/more information about Eric Cameron Finance minister?

There is no such person as “Eric Cameron, Finance minister”. Eric Cameron is a fictional character in a novel, The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis.

6. Who are the contesting parties for the post of Prime Minister in the UK?

No one contests for the post of prime minister since the prime minister is not elected directly by voters. The leader of whichever party ends up forming the government following a general election will become prime minister. In the case of a coalition government, as is currently the case  in the UK, traditionally the leader of the largest party in the coalition normally becomes prime minister. Currently in the UK, there are only two parties which have a realistic chance at forming the government on their own (i.e., winning a majority of the seats), and thus their leader would become the Prime Minister. These are Labour (currently led by Ed Miliband) and the Conservatives (led by David Cameron, who is currently Prime Minister leading a Coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats). Even if the next election resulted in another hung parliament, it would be either Miliband or Cameron who would end up as PM, depending on the actual seat results.

7. What happens if we elect a minority government in the Ontario election?

Voters don’t elect governments, they elect a parliament. If the election results in a hung (minority) parliament – in which no party wins a majority of the seats, there are many forms of government which could result. Please see this post for a full discussion of the various options that would be available for the parties to consider, depending on the actual results of the election.

8. In parliamentary systems, how much influence do the opposition parties have/how effective are the opposition parties?

There is no clear answer to this as it will depend on various factors such as the type of government in place and the circumstances the opposition parties find themselves in. For example, if an election results in a single-party majority government, the opposition parties will have very little influence. If an election results in a hung parliament, and a minority government emerges from that, the opposition parties are theoretically in a much stronger position since the minority government will require the support of some opposition members or parties in order to pass its legislation. This will force the government to include policies that it thinks will appeal to the opposition, or the opposition will be able to amend the legislation during committee stage. However, even in a minority government situation, sometimes the opposition parties find themselves in a very weakened position, and thus they are keen to avoid anything that might defeat the government and lead to an election since they themselves are not ready to fight an election. Perhaps they are in the midst of a leadership change, or their party is down in the polls, or they are having trouble raising money and can’t afford to fight an election. Because of this, they will be less likely to oppose the government.

In the case of a coalition government, such as is currently the case in the UK, while it does have a majority of seats, because the government is made up of two parties, this has the potential to make it more unstable than a single-party majority government. Also, UK MPs are much more independent than are their counterparts in countries such as Canada and Australia, where party discipline is very very strong and MPs rarely defy the party whips. Therefore in the UK, even government backbench MPs often oppose their own government.

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Parlour games?

The Guardian’s Nicholas Watt recently wrote that the ongoing phone-hacking scandal and Prime Minister David Cameron’s closeness to central players in the Murdoch empire (e.g. Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson) leaves him vulnerable to having Nick Clegg “pull the plug” not on the coalition, but on Cameron himself:

This is where the eyes of Lib Dems really light up. If damaging details emerge Clegg could go to Cameron and say that his party is deeply committed to the coalition but it can no longer serve under him as prime minister. At this point Cameron has to decide: does he sacrifice his career to save the coalition, paving the way for another Tory to take his place as prime minister, or does he soldier on as leader of a deeply unstable minority administration?

Lib Dems are enjoying the prospect of bringing down Cameron. It would allow them to go into the next election saying they had saved two cherished British institutions – the NHS and the office of the prime minister.

In fairness, Watt admits that this is “the remotest of remote prospects”, “all very far-fetched and belongs in the world of a fantasy parlour game”. I would tend to agree with that, and wonder why Watt bothered to posit the possibility of this occurring.

There is no doubt that Cameron has been weakened by this scandal, and things could possibly get worse for him, as Watt notes. However, I wonder if the Liberal Democrats really would have anything to gain by forcing Cameron to resign.

The coalition government came about largely because of Cameron. There were, and are, a fair number of both Tory MPs and Tory supporters who would have preferred that the Conservatives govern on their own as a minority government, and believe that the party has made too many compromises in order to satisfy the Liberal Democrats. There are also a fair number of Conservative party supporters who have never really liked David Cameron, and who don’t think he’s sufficiently right-wing, if the comment sections on traditionally pro-Conservative media sites such as the Telegraph, ConservativeHome and the Spectator are anything to go by.

If the Lib Dems did present Cameron with an ultimatum such as the one Watt puts forward, and Cameron did decide to step down, I don’t know who might emerge as the new party leader. Someone the Lib Dems could still work with, such as George Osborne? Or someone far more “traditionally conservative” such as David Davis? There is no guarantee that the new leader would be as willing to continue with a coalition, and the Liberal Democrats could find themselves in an even more difficult situation.

The Liberal Democrats are still struggling in the polls. If they attempted a coup against Cameron, it seems to me that regardless the outcome, it would result in a general election. If, when presented with such an ultimatum, Cameron refused to resign, the Lib Dems would have to pull out of the coalition. A Conservative minority government could then easily be defeated in a confidence vote, resulting in an election that would most likely be won by Labour and that would also most likely see the Lib Dems decimated. If Cameron did agree to step down, and was replaced by someone far more traditionally Tory, it might become impossible for the Lib Dems to continue in the coalition, which would force them to pull out, which then would most likely lead to an election, or the new leader might decide to call an election to seek a new mandate. Either way, this would spell major trouble for the Liberal Democrats.

Watt may be right when he states that:

But nobody should forget that relations between Cameron and Clegg changed forever when the prime minister – in the eyes of his deputy – broke his words to allow the No campaign in the AV campaign to turn on him.

Clegg is not out for revenge. But any warmth he felt towards Cameron evaporated for good in the spring.

This does not, however, mean that the two cannot continue to work together. And I am not entirely convinced that the relationship between Clegg and Cameron has soured that much. The Constitution Unit’s interim report on the inner workings of the coalition, released in June of this year, indicates that the two continue to work well together. As stated in the press release:

Despite the political strains which have affected the coalition in recent months, the Constitution Unit’s research on how the coalition works shows that it has functioned very well in its first year. Viewed from inside, the ructions which have dominated the headlines have not destroyed the coalition’s effectiveness.

I agree with Watt that the prospect of this possible power play against Cameron by Clegg is extremely remote. I can’t see that there would be much, if anything, for the Lib Dems to gain from such a move. Cameron, as far as I can tell, remains conmitted to the idea of coalition government; many in his party, including many MPs, less so. And I don’t think such a plot is in the making, given that even more left-wing members of the Lib Dems are refraining from directly attacking Cameron. If anything, a weakened Cameron might well strengthen the hand of the Lib Dems within the coalition; ousting him would more likely than not leave the Lib Dems in a more vulnerable position.

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Some interesting links

1. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s appearance before the House of Lords Constitution Committee

On 18 May 2011, UK Deputy PM Nick Clegg appeared before the Lords Select Constitution Committee to discuss issues such as the AV referendum aftermath, Lords reform and other constitutional matters. You can watch that session here.

2. Role and Powers of the Prime Minister

The UK Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform is currently conducting an inquiry into the Role and Powers of the Prime Minister. They’ve published on volume of written evidence, and one submission stood out for me, a paper by the Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, FBA, Attlee Professor of Contemporary History, School of History, Queen Mary, University of London, which looks at the functions of the Prime Minister as they have evolved from 1947, 2005, to 2011.  The list has grown from 12 items in 1947 to 47 today.

3. Parliament’s role in conflict decision

The UK Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform looked into the matter of the role of Parliament in decisions to commit British forces to armed conflict abroad. You can read their final report here (HTML version) or here for the PDF.

4. Antony’s Green Australian State Election Archive

For anyone interested in all things electoral from Australia, elections expert Antony Green has been engaging in an archiving project of his collection of electoral material. The material available concerns Australian state electoral publications. You can access the archive here.

5. Up a gum tree

I’d linked to this Financial Times article in a post about Australia’s Question Time, but feel it warrants another plug. In this lengthy piece, Matthew Engel looks at how Australia’s hung parliament is working – or rather, not working.

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Keyword post: Some answers to search results

This post will provide answers to actual search engine queries that led people to this blog. None of these would really make a full blog post on their own, which is why I’ve decided to answer a few in one post.

1. How many people did/didn’t vote for David Cameron?

This one is very easy to answer. Exactly 23,796 people did not vote for David Cameron in the May 2010 general election. Cameron stood for election in the constituency of Witney, opposed by nine other candidates. Voter turnout in that riding was 57,769 (73.8%), and of that, 33,973, or 58.8% voted for Cameron, meaning 23,796 voters voted for other candidates.

It is important to remember that in parliamentary systems such as those we have in the UK, Canada, Australia, etc., people do not vote directly for the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is simply whichever MP is also leader of the party which forms the government. Please see this post for more information.

2. Has the fixed term parliaments bill passed/been defeated?

The fixed term parliaments bill received Royal Assent on 15 September 2011. You can track the progress of any bill currently before Parliament on the Bills before Parliament page of the UK Parliament’s website.

3. What is the procedure to recall a Canadian Member of Parliament (MP)?

There is no procedure to recall MPs in Canada. There is only one jurisdiction in Canada (indeed, in the entire Commonwealth) which has recall legislation, and that is the province of British Columbia. The UK Coalition Government has introduced a draft bill on MP recall. You can read more about how recall works in British Columbia in this post.

4. How does one address the Lieutenant Governor in a speech?

“Your Honour” first, then “Sir” or “Madam” or “Mr./Mrs./Ms./Miss (name)”.

Everything you ever wanted to know about styles of address can be found here. You may want to consult this post for other useful political resources.

5. How many people voted for the NDP?

For any elections-related questions, your first stop should always be Elections Canada. In the 2 May 2011 general election, 4,508,474 voters across the country cast votes for an NDP candidate, or 30.63% of voters who bothered to turnout for the election (turnout was 61.4%).

6. Does the government know what questions will be coming forward in question period?

Yes and no. In Canada, the opposition does not usually provide the government with advance notice of what questions it intends to ask, however, there is nothing preventing it from doing so. Indeed, if there is a question that an opposition MP feels the government might not expect to have come up, he or she might inform the Minister concerned beforehand that they intend to raise the matter during oral questions. In general, the government will have a good sense of what questions to expect because the opposition will hone in on any topic that is currently in the news. As well, the government carefully scripts the questions asked by its own backbenchers, so those questions (and their answers) are quite carefully rehearsed.

In the UK, questions for departments must be submitted three days in advance, specifically to give the concerned minister the time to prepare answers. However, the last 10-15 minutes of each day’s questions are reserved for “topical questions”, which aren’t submitted ahead of time, so the minister will not know exactly what questions to expect (although he or she, like their Canadian counterparts, can assume they will be on more current matters). Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) aren’t submitted ahead of time, although loyal government MPs will often give Downing Street advance notice of their question, or try to ask something ‘helpful’ – possibly to try to impress the PM or those looking out for future ministerial talent. But the PM can be asked about anything at all for which the government is responsible, which means they have to be up to speed on all areas of policy.

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Keyword post: How does the Prime Minister end up Prime Minister?

It seems a few readers have been looking for information on the procedure for electing a Prime Minister.

In a parliamentary system such as we have in Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, etc., the Prime Minister is not directly elected by the voters. They are a Member of the legislative body in question, and so elected as the representative of whichever constituency they run in. They are also the leader of a political party. They only become Prime Minister if their party ends up forming the government, either on its own or as part of a coalition or other arrangement.They do not have to be the leader of the party which has the most seats in the legislature – rather, they are the leader of the party which can command the confidence of the House. For example, in the UK, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, was elected to the House of Commons as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Witney. Because the Conservatives formed the government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Cameron is now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Similarly, in Canada, Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party, was elected to the House of Commons as the Member of Parliament for Calgary Southwest. The party won a majority of seats in the last general election and so forms the government, making Harper the Prime Minister of Canada. Voters in the UK did not vote for Cameron directly for the post of Prime Minister, nor did voters in Canada vote directly for Harper as Prime Minister. They were elected in their constituencies as an MP.

Political parties choose their leaders by various means, but to simplify, there is usually a leadership contest, where interested persons can put themselves forward as candidates. To be a candidate they have to be a member of the party, and each party will have certain other requirements that will have to be met, such as gaining the support of a certain number of party members or sitting Members of Parliament, etc. The leadership campaigns will usually include debates between the various candidates, and the candidates will travel across the country meeting party members in different parts of the country to try to gather their support.

Most parties will then have a leadership convention, where party members will vote for which candidate they want as leader. Again, each party will have different procedures in place. Some parties elect delegates from each constituency to attend the convention and cast votes. Others give each member a vote if they attend the convention. Others will mail out ballots to every member so that they can vote even if they don’t attend the convention, etc.

Some political parties in some countries limit the choice of leader to members of the party’s elected caucus, meaning only the party’s elected MPs will choose the next leader. Party members have no say in the matter. Some parties combine both – the caucus will do the initial selection of candidates and narrow the choice down to two candidates, and then the party membership at large will have the final say between those two individuals. In the end, the result is the same, one candidate will be elected the leader of the party. (If you want to know how a specific political party chooses its leader, I would recommend visiting that party’s official website and finding the party’s constitution. That document usually details the process the party follows for selecting a leader. If that information is not readily available on the party’s website, you could also try contacting an elected representative of that party and asking them how the party chooses its leader.)

If that party is already the governing party, the new leader automatically becomes Prime Minister. They don’t have to wait until a new election is called. Often, a new leader will decide to call an election soon after they take over the party in order to seek a new mandate from voters for the party under their leadership, but they are not obligated to do this. They can just as easily serve out the remainder of the parliamentary term before going to the polls.

Sometimes, there is no actual leadership contest. For example, when Tony Blair announced that he was stepping down as leader of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown became leader without facing any leadership contest. This wasn’t because no one else was interested in the position, it was because an agreement had been reached that Blair would step down and Brown would become leader. A similar situation occurred in Canada when Jean Chrétien stepped down as leader of the Liberal Party. It was expected that Paul Martin would be the next leader (it was Martin’s supporters who pushed Chrétien to resign). One other MP did enter the race, Sheila Copps, but it was a foregone conclusion that Martin would win, and he did, with 94% of the vote. Sometimes, the party might feel there isn’t time for a proper leadership race, and so the party caucus decides on a leader. This occurred in Canada following the 2008 election. The Liberals did not do well in that election, and the party leader, Stéphane Dion, announced he would resign. However, because it was a minority government situation, the party felt it couldn’t afford to go through a normal leadership process and so the caucus decided that MP Michael Ignatieff, who had finished second to Dion in the previous leadership contest, would become party leader.

Sometimes a party chooses a leader who doesn’t have a seat in the legislative body. In those instances, the party appoints an acting leader among sitting MPs to deal with business in the House (if the House is in session at the time) until the actual leader can win a seat, either in the next general election, or via a by-election. For example, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, Christy Clark was elected leader of the Liberal party to replace outgoing leader and Premier Gordon Campbell. Clark had been out of politics for a few years, and so did not have a seat in the provincial legislature. She won the party leadership on February 26, 2011, and was sworn in as premier on March 14, 2011, even though she did not have a seat. When Campbell resigned as leader, he also resigned his seat as an MLA, and a by-election was held on May 11, 2011, which Clark contested for and won.

It is important to remember that voters in countries such as Canada and the UK elect parliaments, not governments, and that it is the elected parliament that determines which party or parties will command the confidence of the House and form the government. Who leads that party is not what matters – what matters is that government maintain the confidence of the House. For example, when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party, and by default became Prime Minister, there were frequent accusations made in the media that he didn’t have a mandate because he had not been elected to that office. What people meant is that Brown had not called an election soon after taking over the party leadership, to see if Labour, with him as leader, could win another mandate from the people. However, it isn’t accurate to say he had no mandate because he wasn’t elected. The 2005 general election had resulted in Labour winning a majority of seats in the House of Commons, and thus the party was fully entitled to serve out the entirety of its term.

The fact that Labour had changed leaders during that term was essentially an internal party administrative matter; it did not impact the configuration of the House of Commons, and Labour still commanded the confidence of the House. Brown was elected as an MP, he was also selected by Labour as their leader. To say he wasn’t elected Prime Minister is unfair – no Prime Minister is elected by the people to that post, they are only elected as a local MP. Similarly, as mentioned above, Christy Clark became Premier of British Columbia when she won the leadership of the Liberal Party earlier this year. British Columbia has fixed-term elections, and the next election is scheduled for May 2013. There is nothing in the fixed-term election act that requires an earlier election because the governing party changes leader at some point during a parliamentary term. The only thing that would potentially prompt an earlier election is if the Liberal Party lost the confidence of the Legislative Assembly, or if Clark decided to ignore the fixed-term election law and call an early election.

This may strike some as bizarre and undemocratic, but it isn’t if one understands how the system works. We elect MPs, who form a parliament. Parliament decides which party or group of parties will command the confidence of the House and form the government. Who leads that party is up to the party to decide.

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Watch those open mics

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron were in Nottingham promoting the government’s budget. During a round of applause, Clegg was caught off mic saying to Cameron:

“If we keep doing this we won’t find anything to bloody disagree on in a bloody TV debate.”

You can hear it for yourself on The World At One. It’s at the 7:13 mark.

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